The Rowdy Tellez of 2018 is almost nothing like the player he was in 2017.
The Bisons' first baseman knows last season wasn’t his best. He had the worst stats of his professional career and struggled to hit the ball, but his mind also was 2,500 miles away while his mother battled cancer in California.
The diagnosis of Stage 4 melanoma came before the season, and there wasn't much he could do except hope for good news. The call came in late June when Lori informed her son that doctors were halting the treatment because she was cancer free.
“She is doing way better,” Tellez said last week. “Walking a lot every day my dad says. She’s got her parents there. She’s starting to text me again, which is really good, all the small-motor skills. She’s doing a lot better. … It was tough, it was really close.”
With his mother's health improving, Tellez has used this year as a second chance to get back on the path that had some labeling him as the Blue Jays' first baseman of the future.
Through 56 games entering Tuesday's doubleheader at Pawtucket, he has 23 runs, 51 hits and 25 RBIs, compared with 45 runs, 99 hits and 56 RBIs in 122 games last year.
“Last year I think he worked but not like he is this year,” manager Bobby Meacham said. “This year he’s working really hard, and he’s been doing a lot of things with Corey Hart, our hitting coach. They are digging hard to try and get something right, and you are seeing the result of some good hard work.”
The 2016 season was the best of his career. It started with an invite to Blue Jays spring training and ended with 71 runs, 130 hits and 81 RBIs in 124 games with Class AA New Hampshire. He was called up to the Bisons for the 2017 season, but the success didn’t seem to follow him, at least not right away. Tellez went back home to Florida immediately after the 2017 season ended and started to fix the problems that plagued him all season in anticipation of returning to Buffalo for 2018.
“I didn’t take time off,” Tellez said. “I took about a week off and went right into the weight room starting working out, working on my swing again and trying to figure out what the difference was between 2016 and 2017.”
Now he’s controlling his defense, putting good swings on the ball, and being pickier at the plate. He has cut down his strikeout rate to one per six at bats. But he also still has lessons to learn. He was pulled from a game last week after failing to run out an infield popup with the bases loaded.
Meacham said it was his attitude, not his ability, that forced him to the bench.
“I think they just need me to remind them what they really want to do and sometimes they get off when they get really disappointed when they don’t get hits,” Meacham said. “It's OK. All of us are going to make mistakes, but the key is just bouncing back and having good success with what you are trying to do.”
Two nights later, Tellez hit a two-run homer in the bottom of the ninth to tie the game and send it to extra innings, where the Bisons eventually fell, 6-2. He then followed up that performance on Sunday with a double in the sixth inning that led to him scoring the winning run.
“That’s maturity, that’s how you mature,” Meacham said. “That’s how you get better once you try to get better and he’s trying to be open-minded a lot this year. We talked about it how he’s trying to take that criticism from us constructively and use it for his advantage and in the end, he’s going to be a better ball player. He’s doing a great job.”
It's an issue Meacham knows affects more than just Tellez, and something he said he has been trying to clean up in the clubhouse this year.
“It’s ego, a lot of pride,” he said. “We talk about it a lot – or at least I do – I’ve learned a lot over the years about being prideful and how that doesn’t really help. Being humble helps you to get to look yourself in the mirror and make progress towards who you want to be and what you want to do. That’s what their learning right now, swallow your pride a little bit and being humble is a good thing if you learn from it and that’s what we are seeing from these guys.”
Tellez was drafted in the 30th round in 2013 after falling because he had committed to USC. He has moved to No. 11 in the Blue Jays' prospect rankings by MLBPipeline.com, an improvement from where he started the year.
“It’s gone a lot better than last year,” he said. “Just focusing on things I can control this year and doing everything in my power and not worrying about what I can’t control. We’ve got a great staff here and a great team. It’s fun playing on a team that has the same mindset as you.”